[erlang-questions] Rhetorical structure of code: Anyone interested in collaborating?

Felix Gallo felixgallo@REDACTED
Thu Apr 28 17:23:14 CEST 2016

I agree with Fred's point that there are such a profusion of cross-cutting
concerns that it seems unlikely that there's a single unifying view
paradigm that works.  For example, I want a Brendan Gregg(tm) Flamegraph to
pop up when I run my code in debug, and I want the functions of my code to
start glowing with their relative heat; and I want 'receive' statements to
have a tiny little number spinning above each branch showing how many
messages of each type were received; and I want lines of code that cause a
crash to have a little stop sign in their gutter; and so on.  But that
'operational code view' would be nonsensical in early coding, where you
might want code annotated with quality/linter marks and documentation notes.

On the topic of finding a way to constrain developers, though, I think
that's resolvable with powerful type systems.  If a particular variable is
of opaque type 'identifier' which itself isn't a member of 'enumerable',
then the compiler can decline to permit variable.sort().  Although much
smarter minds than mine (e.g. Wadler and Kostis) seem to have concluded
that strong algebraic data typing is problematic in erlang, the folks over
at ponylang are making some pretty incredible and novel inroads in an
erlangesque scenario.  Would that I were a young computer science


On Thu, Apr 28, 2016 at 8:02 AM, Fred Hebert <mononcqc@REDACTED> wrote:

> On 04/28, Richard A. O'Keefe wrote:
>> I've been thinking for some time of writing a paper with the
>> title "Why can't I see the structure?" based on the idea that
>> modules in every programming language I know look like blobs.
>> I'm aware of visual notations like UML, BON, SDL, and what
>> was it, Visual Erlang?  But for me, those are just spaghetti
>> with meatballs; once you get beyond just a handful of boxes
>> in your diagram, all diagrams look much the same.  In any
>> case, I'm interested in the medium scale.
>> Why can't I see the structure in a 3000-line module, or even
>> a 1000-line module?  (I am not asserting that Erlang is
>> particularly bad here.  It isn't.)
>> The kind of structure I'm interested in can, I think, be
>> described as *rhetorical* structure, like relationships
>> between paragraphs.
> For me, the conceptual leap seems to be related to the same kind of
> challenges that exist when trying to explain technical material.
> The structure of dependencies to understand a piece of content is based on
> a graph, where any item may require understanding of N dependencies at once
> to make sense out of it.
> However, what we can display, explain, or absorb, is generally done
> linearly: reading a text a paragraph at a time, giving lessons on concepts
> one by one, and so on.
> In the case of code, every function or method or dependency I hit is a
> fractal of new information to explore. In every single module, I can at
> most display code sequentially, with a few variations:
> - bottom-up
> - top-to-bottom
> - divisions into API or Public / Protected / Private
> - divisions into proper module hierarchies (where a 'util' module
> eventually develops and eats up all organisation that once were)
> There's use of ctags and other equivalents to be able to jump around code
> with ease, and then stuff that happened like code bubbles[1], which
> attempted to break up modules and classes into independent units that could
> be displayed on their own. There's probably a lot more equivalent that you
> know more than I do.
> Mostly I've been sticking to vim for the last X years of my career and the
> only sensical steps I have found to traverse code have been to pick either
> a level-order, depth-first, or bottom-up traversal and stick with it.
> In the worst cases, I've had to just whip out a piece of paper and draw
> bubbles and arrows of everything with at least a second dimension (I can
> use both vertical and horizontal space! to convey things!)
> Erlang has made a few things very interesting by forcing an additional
> structure in supervision trees and well-defined behaviour, which lets me
> scan things at a glance in terms of project structure and infer what it
> does without actually needing to understand code.
> But when I get to the code, then there's the well-defined API, then
> behaviour callbacks (which tie the API and private functions to do
> modifications together) and then the rest of modules as libraries that get
> to be used there.
> My *belief* is that if this structure were made explicit,
>> perhaps by textual structure, perhaps by annotations, perhaps
>> by some graphical form (but probably derived from annotations),
>> it would be easier to understand medium-sized wodges of code.
>> I'm aware of annotation support in languages like Java and C#
>> and for that matter, Smalltalk, but with the exception of
>> Smalltalk, nobody seems to be using annotations in this way
>> (and that exception is me).
>> I'd be very interested in hearing from anyone else who has been
>> thinking in this area.
> I've been trying to think about it for some time, as it also has an impact
> when writing documentation and tutorials: how much context is needed for
> this to make sense? Can the context be derived?
> Another one for me has been trying to figure out how to enforce
> system-wide constraints within local pieces of code: this ID is assumed to
> be opaque and not something you can sort on, even if for now it is an
> integer. Breaking such an assumption can ruin systems over time, but
> there's no good way to communicate it outside of assiduous inline comment
> discipline.
> One other interesting thing is that from past informal polls[2], the more
> experimented a developer is, the least they tend to want or desire
> comments, but newer developers think the opposite.
> [1]: http://cs.brown.edu/~spr/codebubbles/
> [2]: http://ferd.ca/poll-results-erlang-maintenance.html
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